Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


Philosophy Weekend: Philosophy at the Book Review

by Levi Asher on Saturday, January 22, 2011 10:01 pm

My worlds collide. I used to review the New York Times Book Review here every weekend, and then I got tired of the routine and decided to use the space instead to cover the philosophy beat (and review some of my own original ideas). But this weekend's Book Review is a philosophy issue, featuring three substantial articles and a cover illustration allegedly representing great thinkers like Plato, Kant, Descartes, Seneca, Augustine and Rousseau in some sort of faux-ancient diagram. I'm too curious to stay away -- let's dive in and see what we find.

First up: Sarah Bakewell on a volume of philosopher mini-biographies, James Miller's Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche. It happens I just read a good new book by Sarah Bakewell called How To Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, which I hope to write more about soon. Today's article doesn't go down as smoothly as the book, though. Bakewell begins by justifying the rationale for studying the lives of philosophers along with their ideas (an easy sell, as far as I'm concerned), and then spins a few quick stories from the book. But the stories she cites focus more on the weird quirks of various great thinkers, rather than deeply considered appraisals of their entire lives.

So we hear that Immanuel Kant "ended his life in an obsessive-compulsive hell, endlessly consulting thermometers and barometers" and that Diogenes the Cynic "lived in a clay jar, masturbated on the street and embraced snow-covered statues" (don't we all?). But these are sound bites, cocktail-party one-liners, banal anecdotes that only serve to caricature the great philosophers rather than helping us understand them as fully-realized people.

Philosophy Weekend: Socrates's Challenge

by Levi Asher on Saturday, January 8, 2011 10:40 am

Socrates: When you speak of a person desiring fine things, do you mean it is good things he desires?

Meno: Certainly.

Socrates: Then do you think some people desire evil and others good? Doesn't everyone, in your opinion, desire good things?

Meno: No.

Socrates: And would you say that the others suppose evil to be good, or do they still desire them although they recognize them as evil?

Meno: Both, I should say.

Socrates: What? Do you really think that anyone who recognizes evils for what they are, nevertheless desires them?

Meno: Yes.

Socrates: Desires in what way? To possess them?

Meno: Of course.

Socrates: In the belief that evil things bring advantage to their possessor, or harm?

Meno: Some in the first belief, but some also in the second.

Socrates: And do you believe that those who suppose evil things bring advantage understand that they are evil?

Meno: No, that I can't really believe.

Socrates: Isn't it clear then that this class, who don't recognize evils for what they are, don't desire evil but what they think is good, though in fact it is evil, those who through ignorance mistake bad things for good obviously desire the good?

Meno: For them I suppose that is true.

Socrates: Now as for those whom you speak of as desiring evils in the belief that they do harm to their possessor, those presumably know that they will be injured by them?

Meno: They must.

Socrates: And don't they believe that whoever is injured is, in so far as he is injured, unhappy?

Meno: That too they must believe.

Socrates: And unfortunate?

Meno: Yes.

Socrates: Well, does anybody want to be unhappy and unfortunate?

Meno: I suppose not.

Socrates: Then in not, nobody desires what is evil, for what else is unhappiness but desiring evil things and getting them?

Meno: It looks as if you are right, Socrates, and nobody desires what is evil.

Socrates: Now you have just said that virtue consists in a wish for good things plus the power to acquire them. In this definition the wish is common to everyone, and in that respect no one is better than his neighbor.

Meno: So it appears.
-- Plato, Meno

Vision in Combray: Proust Beyond the Madeleines Concluded

by Michael Norris on Monday, December 13, 2010 10:50 pm

(In June 2009, Michael Norris began a series of explorations of Marcel Proust's long masterpiece In Search of Lost Time that concludes with a personal coda today. Thanks to Mike Norris and artist David Richardson for this extensive work! A page devoted to the entire series has just been created here. -- Levi)

I awoke to a hellish clanging. Bells! Sunlight filtered in through the shutters. I shifted gradually from sleep to consciousness, and as I did, I remembered where I was. Combray. Well, Illiers-Combray. The French village that inspired Marcel Proust. The town started its life as Illiers, and was renamed Illiers-Combray in 1971 on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Proust’s birth.

The bells continued relentlessly. Of course! It was early Sunday morning. It was the bells of the church, Saint Jacques (Saint Hilaire in In Search of Lost Time) summoning the townspeople to mass. My wife was still sleeping, oblivious to the din. I slipped into my clothes and went downstairs.

The hotel where we were staying, Hôtel de l’Image, is the sole lodging in the center of town. The only other hotel is near the railway station. The Hôtel de l’Image stands on the town square, sandwiched between a grocery store and a pharmacy, just a few steps from the church. There is a single café on the square. The hotel bar serves as an alternative to the café for those who want to get in out of the hot morning sun.

I took a seat at the far end of the bar and ordered an espresso. It was wonderfully cool inside, and a breeze blew in from the door that opened on to the street. Outside, I could see the bright sun already beating down on the outdoor tables of the café.

Proust's Lost Time: Beyond The Madeleines

by Michael Norris on Monday, December 13, 2010 10:29 am

Between June 2009 and December 2010, Michael Norris explored Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, also known as Remembrance of Things Past, in these pages. Here, with original artwork by David Richardson, is the entire sequence.

Marcel Proust: Beyond the Madeleines
June 16, 2009

Pondering Proust II
September 8, 2009

Pondering Proust III: Guermantes Way
November 16, 2009

Beat Reflections

by Levi Asher on Monday, December 6, 2010 10:31 pm

It's almost 2011, and the Beat Generation is as hot a topic as ever. Especially when it comes to new movies. Here's the rundown:

1. Way back in 1952, long before Howl, long before On The Road, the phrase "Beat Generation" appeared for the first time in a New York Times Magazine Article by an up-and-coming New York City writer, John Clellon Holmes. Holmes, a good friend of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and a founding member of the original Beat circle in New York City, also wrote several novels that were respectably reviewed. But he lacked the charisma and theatricality of the later Beat writers, and struggled for literary success even as his friends reached explosive levels of fame.

It's only because of these legendary friends, and not because of his own fiction, that John Clellon Holmes merits an extensive literary biography by Ann and Samuel Charters today. Brother-Souls: John Clellon Holmes, Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation is unusual among literary biographies because its hero never had a breakout success. Instead, he filled out his career with dead end manuscripts, odd magazine assignments and college teaching jobs. In this sense, Brother-Souls is actually a more accurate glimpse of how most writers live than any typical biography of a famous writer. Still, mostly due to Ann and Sam Charters' obvious affection for their subject (who was their close friend), a poignant and meaningful storyline emerges. The most surprising chapters take place during the 1960s, when Holmes and his wife Shirley attempt to find their own inroads into the swinging counterculture by experimenting earnestly (and at a very intellectual level) with free love and group sex. These experiments failed more often than not, sometimes leaving deep psychic wounds behind, and the chronicles of these failures (which Holmes himself later tried to publish a book about) provide a new angle -- an Updikeean angle, surprisingly enough -- on the famous legend of the Beats. Brother-Souls, though clearly a labor of love by the Charters team, is a nice addition to their body of work (Ann Charters wrote the first biography of Jack Kerouac, many decades ago).

Bookshop Memories: The Liberty Lobby

by Alan Bisbort on Wednesday, December 1, 2010 07:30 am

(Another installment of Alan Bisbort's bookselling memoir.)

Because our bookshop was located within eyeshot of the U.S. Capitol’s snow-white dome, we still retained some guilt by association with the political world. You had to walk to the corner and then look eight blocks west to see the dome, but nonetheless its magical aura enfolded us too. As tempting as it may have been, we could not bury our heads in the sands, burrow deeper inside our antiquarian world and hope to stay in business. This was simply not possible in Washington, D.C., at least not in the middle of the Reagan-Gingrich Revolution.

Though politics and civics were two of the shop’s weaker subject areas, we were occasionally visited by politicos and lobbyists brave or absent-minded enough to venture into the less-traveled (and more feared) zones of the District of Columbia. Often, they were on their lunch breaks and, having wandered a street or two too far, stumbled onto the shop by accident. Most of these visitors had not, previously, known we existed. And few of them ever returned.

Among this group of political animals, one critter stood out. He was a resident expert—perhaps the resident expert—at the Liberty Lobby, a far-right-wing organization about which I knew little beyond what this fellow suggested it must be like.

His name was John Tiffany, and he was, despite the name, neither delicate nor colorful, nor was he in any way illuminating. He always seemed to be wearing the same flannel shirt. He sported a sort of whisk-broom moustache that he must have fancied was manly—an antidote, no doubt, to all the feminists and lesbians who held court hereabouts and made men like John Tiffany nervous. He was one of the few people I had ever seen who employed a pocket protector, inside which were housed the tools of his trade as a writer of political and historical spin. And he was tongue-tied, floor-gazing, completely at a loss in any one-on-one human encounter.

Philosophy Weekend: Kim Jong-Il and the Loony Way Out

by Levi Asher on Saturday, November 27, 2010 01:17 am

This week's scary news of a sudden attack on South Korea by North Korea brought North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il into the spotlight again. But, all too often the analysis of this dangerous politician's motivation and character takes a quick dive into comic disbelief. "He's a loon." "He's out of his mind." "Kim Jong-Il is a nutjob."

This material can make good comedy -- and, listen, I don't understand the haircut either. But I sure hope nobody thinks "Kim Jong-Il is a loon" can substitute for real insight. A statement like this is, rather, a display of no insight. It signifies that some logic or explanation for Jong-Il's actions exists, and that we are blind to it. A statement like this is the opposite of insight.

We love comedy and satire in the United States of America, and we often have fun with the shrill, hysterical personalities of our military opponents. There's nothing wrong with this, unless we allow it to become a dead end for our own knowledge. When it comes to understanding North Korea here in the USA, this seems to have taken place. Kim Jong-Il is a Saturday Night Live skit, and as far as most Americans know, that's all he is.

Is Kim Jong-Il actually crazy? The evidence for this is slight, though his embattled leadership position has probably pushed his sanity towards the edges. However, we don't even have strong information about whether or not Kim Jong-Il is the prime decision-maker within the government, so it may not matter whether he is insane or not. Often in history we have misunderstood our enemy's internal workings. (For instance, during World War II it was generally believed among US and British military strategists that the Prussian military leadership was driving military strategy in Nazi Germany, when in fact this took place within Hitler's Nazi Party, a completely different organization. If we had known this during World War II, we could have helped the Prussian military clique overthrow Hitler, as it was desperately trying to do).

Like the government of every nation in the world, North Korea's is run by some kind of hive mind, and if we don't want to blunder our way through the Korean crisis (the way George W. Bush seemed to blunder through every foreign engagement for eight years) we are going to need to dig a little deeper and try to understand this hive mind. We're going to have to challenge our own intellects a little more.

The Sea of Possibilities

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, November 17, 2010 11:35 pm

1. Just Kids, Patti Smith's beguiling memoir of late 1960s New York, the Chelsea Hotel, Robert Mapplethorpe and the early 1970s St. Mark's Church punk poetry scene, has won the National Book Award! Quite impressive. I totally called this back in February, you know. The winner's circle above includes Jaimy Gordon, Terrance Hayes, Kathryn Erskine.

2. Doonesbury turns 40! I grew up with this comic strip. I used to especially love the counterculture literary references: Uncle Duke was Hunter S. Thompson, and several characters lived at the Walden Puddle Commune. (This was probably a reference not only to Thoreau's Walden but also to B. F. Skinner's then-fashionable Walden Two.)

Before I found out Patti won the National Book Award I was going to illustrate today's blog post with a picture I found of Zonker scuba-diving in Walden Puddle. The image is too good to waste, so here it is:

3. Michael Orthofer of the Complete Review has written a book, The Complete Review: Eleven Years, 2500 Reviews, A Site History, about his experience creating and maintaining that website and the accompanying blog Literary Saloon. I've read it, and it's a charming, candid look at the kinds of questions, decisions and private struggles that animate the life of a serious independent blogger.

Philosophy Weekend: Specters of Socialism

by Levi Asher on Friday, October 29, 2010 11:18 pm

As soon as Barack Obama became President of the United States two years ago, I started hearing about "socialism" in America. Opponents of Obama's platform have raised widespread suspicions that his entire presidency is a conspiracy to establish government control over every aspect of our lives. These critics often use words like "socialism", "Marxism", "fascism" and "tyranny" interchangeably, and have so successfully spooked many trusting American citizens that an entire Rally To Restore Sanity (and/or Fear) became necessary in Washington DC this weekend.

Still, of course, the fear remains. And, in fact, vigilant citizens of every nation in the world should always fear government tyranny, because we've seen horrific examples of it in recent times. Frank Dikotter's history book Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962 is a real eye-opener for anybody who lives in comfortable freedom and can't quite picture what real tyranny might feel like.

This book will fill in the blanks, and you'll never forget it. From 1958 to 1961, Mao Zedong's Communist Party-led government carried out an experimental program of food redistribution that literally condemned tens of millions -- yes, tens of millions -- of its own rural citizens to slow, painful death by starvation. Farmers were forced to combine their private farms into collectives, and when these collective harvests failed to meet their unrealistic quotas of food, the farmers were forced to continue to work without eating, until they and their families simply died. Government representatives invaded private homes, poking with long sticks for hidden stashes of food, even as the citizens lay dying on the floor (the government representatives, of course, were well-fed).

Upski's Back: Please Don't Bomb The Suburbs by William Upski Wimsatt

by Levi Asher on Monday, October 25, 2010 08:34 pm

Sometime during the crazy mid-1990s, young graffiti artist and Chicago activist William "Upski" Wimsatt wrote Bomb the Suburbs, one of the quintessential early Soft Skull books. The title was an attention grabber, though of course to "bomb" a place is to spray-paint your tag on a wall, and no call to violence was ever intended.

But a few more crazy years have passed since the mid-90s, and some places around the world really have gotten bombed -- Oklahoma City, New York City and the Pentagon, Iraq and Afghanistan -- and the title of Wimsatt's new book Please Don't Bomb The Suburbs (published, this time around, by Akashic) deals with these changes head-on. The author's introduction explains the conundrums he's faced:

I had nothing to do with the Oklahoma City bombing. It was 180 degrees opposite of my values and worldview. Yet suddenly, the title of my book wasn't so cute anymore. After September 11, it became even less cute.

Fast-forward to 2008. A lot of my friends were involved in the Obama campaign. I had been campaigning for social change for twenty years. This was the most exciting and important campaign of my lifetime. I was already volunteering. And one of my friends asked me to be on an advisory committee. Exciting. *Just send me your resume, you'll be vetted and then* --


Whoa, vetted. Forgot that part.


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